Washington People: Stuart Bunderson

Olin professor examines how organizations and people find meaning

Stuart Bunderson, PhD, talks about his research on zookeepers during his installation as the George and Carol Bauer Professor of Organizational Ethics and Governance at Olin Business School. “Organizational behavior is the study of organizations as social and human systems,” Bunderson says. “It’s the study of how you, as a leader, manager or team member, can operate effectively within the structure of formal and informal organizational relationships.” (Credit: Mary Butkus)

The fourth of six children, Stuart Bunderson comes from a family of academics and educators.

His grandfather was a professor of educational administration. His mother returned to school after raising six children to earn a doctorate in botany, going on to teach science education at Brigham Young University (BYU).

His father was a professor of instructional science — the study of human teaching and learning — at BYU and a pioneer in the use of computers in education.

So it was natural that Bunderson, PhD, the George and Carol Bauer Professor of Organizational Ethics and Governance at Olin Business School, would pursue an academic career.

He even considered his father’s discipline of instructional science and educational reform, but he discovered early on that he was drawn to issues of organization and management.

“I realized that the problem with reforming education was not a curriculum design problem as much as it was an organizational and leadership problem,” Bunderson says.

“I became fascinated with understanding organizations as human enterprises — how human beings organize collective work, how leaders emerge and how they exercise influence, why organizations resist change and what can be done to lead productive and visionary reform.”

Getting organized

These interests ultimately led him to earn a doctorate in organizational behavior from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in 1998, after which he began teaching at Olin.

“Organizational behavior is the study of organizations as social and human systems,” Bunderson says. “It’s the study of how you, as a leader, manager or team member, can operate effectively within the structure of formal and informal organizational relationships.”

We often think about organizations as machines, cogs and wheels turning to crank out products or ideas.

“But ultimately organizations are made up of people,” Bunderson says, “and people interact in different ways. We have hierarchies, conflicts, selfish interests and altruistic motives. Understanding how all of that overlays on top of the technical goals of the organization, that’s the domain of organizational behavior.”

Leadership and meaning

Bunderson’s research has focused largely on two fundamental issues: informal leadership and meaning at work.

“Informal leadership is the study of how to exercise influence in a world of dotted-line relationships, conflicting goals and competing incentives,” Bunderson says. “It’s the world of power, politics and influence.

“A huge part of what differentiates successful leaders from unsuccessful leaders is their ability to understand and navigate that world effectively.”

Bunderson tries to understand how informal relationships can both facilitate and hinder growth and development.

“I study how power and status hierarchies in organizations can affect the way that individuals and groups learn, innovate and create meaning for themselves and their organizations,” he says.

Bunderson also studies how individuals create a sense of personal meaning and significance at work. He is well-known for a recent paper on this topic that looked at zookeepers.

“When you look at the organizational behavior literature regarding what motivates employees, the focus is usually on pay, benefits and social concerns like esteem, respect, recognition and friendship,” Bunderson says.

“Those are important, but many people are motivated by what greater good they can accomplish by working for an organization.

“It’s about the cause. It’s about something bigger.”

This interest led him to study zookeepers.

“Here we have people who don’t make a lot of money and are doing what most people would classify as dirty work,” Bunderson says. “Yet they are highly motivated and highly committed.”

His hypothesis was that they were doing it for the cause: the animals.

“That was the case, but there was more to it,” he says. “We were struck by the zookeepers’ sense of calling.

“They have to make sacrifices — they make $26,000 a year and clean up cages during the day. It’s not an easy job. Yet most zookeepers are willing — even eager — to do that work because they see it as a personal calling, as something they are uniquely capable of doing and that serves a broader societal purpose.”

Bunderson is finishing a study that looks at the sense of meaning and calling among business managers.

Teaching executives

The majority of his teaching at Olin focuses on students in the executive master’s of business program, where he teaches informal leadership and leading innovation.

“I really enjoy teaching executives,” he says. “They bring a wealth of experience. In terms of informal leadership, they’ve experienced it. They’ve run into the roadblocks. They’ve lived it.”

He says executives in the program are smart, technically savvy, well-trained and moving up in organizations. But many have encountered obstacles in their personal effectiveness and career progress because they have struggled to effectively navigate the informal organization.

“They discover that in order to truly exercise impact and leadership, they can’t ignore the informal and political side of their organizations. They have to build relationships, understand where power lies and know how to exercise influence. They aren’t always sure how to do those things,” Bunderson says.

“We spend time helping them to understand these issues, and I see the light go on. It’s tremendously rewarding.”

He says executives also bring their work experiences to the classroom, which enriches the discussion and makes it real.

“Teaching executives keeps me on my toes,” he says. “I’m not teaching theoretical concepts to people who are dutifully taking notes. I’m teaching tools to people who want to learn so they can navigate their environments more effectively on Monday morning.”

His commitment to his students and to his research makes a big impression on his colleagues.

“Stuart is a brilliant theoretician and the most disciplined thinker I have worked with,” says Jeff Thompson, PhD, associate professor at the Romney Institute of Public Management at BYU and a research colleague of Bunderson’s.

“At the same time, he brings a sense of playfulness to his research that makes it a joy to collaborate with him,” Thompson says. “As a colleague, he is universally beloved for his warmth and genuineness. He is intensely interested in other people and their work and is an exceptional mentor.”

“Stuart has a good moral compass and is someone who is looking to make a decision for the good of the community,” says Kurt Dirks, PhD, senior associate dean of programs and the Bank of American Professor of Managerial Leadership at Olin.

“I appreciate Stuart’s ability to look at a situation from multiple perspectives, to be thoughtful in his analysis and ultimately to be able to get at the core of the issue,” says Dirks, who went to graduate school with Bunderson.

“This characteristic is what makes him one of the most accomplished faculty in the classroom,” Dirks says. “He gets our students to become better critical thinkers by helping them develop these same skills.”

Bunderson and his wife, Maren, have four children ranging in age from 8 to 16.

When he’s not researching or teaching, Bunderson loves spending time outdoors with his family and spends a lot of time working with his church.

“Olin has been a great place for me,” he says. “I have great colleagues and an environment where I can be productive.

“People have very high standards for research excellence. At the same time, they really try to get along.”

Fast facts about Stuart Bunderson

Research focus: Informal leadership and meaning at work
Education: BS, 1991, Brigham Young University; MS, 1993, Brigham Young University; PhD, 1998, University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Family: He and his wife, Maren, have four children age 8-16
Before coming to Olin: Bunderson worked in organization and management development at PepsiCo Inc. and studied change management at Allina Health System, both in Minneapolis.